The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Observance of the Sabbath

THIS is the second special means appointed by our Creator, for the purpose of cultivating in us suitable moral dispositions. We shall treat, first, of the original institution of the Sabbath; secondly, of the Mosaic Sabbath; thirdly, of the Christian Sabbath.

Although the Sabbath is a positive institution, and, therefore, the proof of its obligation is to be sought for entirely from revelation, yet there are indications, in the present constitution, that periods of rest are necessary, both for man and for beast. The recurrence of night, and the necessity of repose, show that the principle of rest enters into the present system, as much as that of labor. And, besides, it is found that animals which are allowed one day in seven for rest, live longer, and enjoy better health, than those which are worked without intermission. The same may, to a considerable degree, be said of man. The late Mr. Wilberforce attributed his length of life, and the superiority of health which he enjoyed over his political contemporaries, mainly to his resolute and invariable observance of the Sabbath day; a duty which, unfortunately, they too frequently neglected.

I shall not go into the argument on this subject in detail, as the limits of the present work will not admit of it, but shall merely give what seem to me the results. To those who wish to examine the question of the obligation of the Sabbath at large, I would recommend the valuable treatise of Mr. J. J. Gurney, on the history, authority, and use of the Sabbath; from which much of the present article is merely an abridgment.

I. Of the original institution of the Sabbath.

First. The Divine authority for the institution of the Sabbath, is found in Genesis 2:1-3 “Thus, the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the hosts of them; and an the seventh day, God ended his work which He had made, and He rested on the seventh day from all his works which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because that in it He had rested from all his work which God had created and made.”

Now, concerning this passage, we remark, —

1. It was given to our first parents; that is, to the whole human race.

2. God blessed it; that is, bestowed upon it a peculiar blessing, or made it a source of peculiar blessings to man. Such, surely, must be that day, which is given in order to cultivate in ourselves moral excellence, and prepare us for the happiness of heaven. He sanctified its; that is. set it apart from a common to a sacred and religious use.

3. The reason is a general one: God rested. This has no reference to any peculiar people, but seems in the light of an example from God for all the human race.

4. The nature of the ordinance is general. God sanctified it; that is, the day. The act refers not to any particular people, but to the day itself.

5. The object to be accomplished is general, and can apply to no one people more than to another. If it be rest, all men equally need it. If it be moral cultivation, surely no people has ever existed who did not require such a means to render them better.

Secondly. There are indications that the hebdomadal division of time was observed by the patriarchs before the time of Moses, and that the Sabbath was regarded as the day for religious worship.

1. Genesis 4:3. “And in process of time, it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the Lord.” The words rendered “in process of time,” literally signify “at the end of days;” or, “at the cutting off of days;” that is, as I think probable, at the close, as we should say, of a section of days; a very natural expression for the end of a week. If this be the meaning, it would seem to refer to the division of time just previously mentioned, and also to the use of this day for religious worship.

2. Noah seems to have observed the same hebdomadal division of time. The command to enter into the ark, was given seven days before the flood came. Genesis 7:4-10. So, he allowed seven days to elapse between the times of sending forth the dove. Genesis 8:10-12. Now, I think that these intimations show that this division of time was observed according to the original command; and we may well suppose that with it was connected the special time for religious worship. Thus, also, Joseph devoted seven days, or a whole week, to the mourning for his father.

3. The next mention of the Sabbath, is shortly after the Israelites had left Egypt, and were fed with manna min the wilderness. Exodus 16:22-30. As the passage is of considerable length, I need not quote it. I would, however, remark, —

1. It occurs before the giving of the law; and, therefore the obligatoriness of the Sabbath is hereby acknowledged irrespective of the Mosaic law.

2. When first alluded to, it is spoken of as a thing known. God, first, without referring to the Sabbath informs Moses that on the sixth day, the Israelites should gather twice as much manna as on any other day. From this, it seems that the division of time by weeks was known, and that it was taken for granted, that they would know the reason for the making of this distinction. In the whole of the narration, there is no precept given for the keeping of the day; but they are reproved for not suitably keeping it, as though it were an institution with which they ought to have been familiar.

Besides these, there are many indications in the earliest classics, that the Greeks and Romans observed the hebdomadal division of time; and, also, that the seventh day was considered peculiarly sacred. This seems to have been the case in the time of Hesiod. The same is supposed to have been the fact in regard to the northern nations of Europe, from which we are immediately descended. The inference which seems naturally to arise from these facts, is, that this institution was originally observed by the whole human race; and that it was transmitted, with different degrees of care, by different nations, until the period of the commencement of our various historical records.

From the above facts, I think we are warranted in the conclusion, that the seventh day, or perhaps, generally, the seventh part of time, was originally set apart for a religious purpose by our Creator, for the whole human race; that it was so observed by the Hebrews, previously to the giving of the law; and that, probably, the observance was, in the infancy of our race, universal.

II. The Mosaic Sabbath.

The precept for the observance of the Sabbath, at the giving of the law, is in these words: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God; in it, thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day. Wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.” Exodus 20:11.

Now, concerning this precept, there are several things worthy of remark:

1. It is found in the law of the ten commandments, which is always referred to in the Scriptures, as containing the sum of the moral precepts of God to man. Our Savior and the Apostles, who made the most decided distinction between moral and ceremonial observances, never allude to the law of the ten commandments in any other manner than as of permanent and universal obligation. Now, I know of no reason which can he assigned, why this precept should be detached from all the rest, and considered as ceremonial, when the whole of these, taken together, are allowed, by universal consent, to have been quoted as moral precepts by Christ and his Apostles. Besides, our Savior expressly declares, that “the Sabbath was made for MAN,” that is for man in general, for the whole human race; and consequently, that it is binding upon the whole race, that is, that it is a precept of universe obligation.

2. The reasons given for observing it, are the same as those given at the time of its first institution. Inasmuch as these reasons are, in their nature, general, we should naturally conclude that the obligation which it imposes, is universal.

3. This commandment is frequently referred to by the prophets, as one of high moral obligation; the most solemn threatenings are uttered against those who profane it; and the greatest rewards promised to those who keep it. See Isaiah 56:2-6; Jeremiah 17:24, 25; Nehemiah 13:15-21.

4. In addition to rest from labor, the meeting together For worship, and the reading of the Scriptures, was made a part of the duty of the Sabbath day. Six days shall work be done; but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest; a holy convocation. Leviticus 23:3. Thus, also, Moses, of old time, hath, in every city, them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day. Acts 15:21.

Besides this reenaction of the Sabbath day, in the Mosaic law, there were special additions made to its observance, which belong to the Jews alone, and which were a part of their civil or ceremonial law. With this view, other reasons were given for observing it, and other rites were added. Thus, for instance,

1. It was intended to distinguish them from the surrounding idolatrous nations. Exodus 31:12-17.

2. It was a memorial of their deliverance from Egypt. Deuteronomy 5:15.

3. And, with these views, the principle of devoting the seventh part of time, was extended also to years; every seventh year being a year of rest.

4. The violation of the Sabbath was punished with death by the civil magistrate.

Now, whatever is in its nature local, and designed for a particular purpose, ceases, whenever that purpose is accomplished. Hence, these civil and ceremonial observances cease, with the termination of the Jewish polity; while that which is moral and universal, that which “was made for man” and not specially for the Jews, remains as though the ceremonial observances had never existed. I think that this view of the subject is also confirmed by the example and precept of Christ, who gave directions concerning the manner in which the Sabbath was to be kept, ant also was himself accustomed to observe the day for the purposes of religious worship. “{As his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.” Luke 4:16. See also Matthew 12:2-13. When our Lord, also, in teaching the mode in which the Sabbath is to be kept, specifies what things it is lawful to do on the Sabbath day, he clearly proceeds upon the principle that it was lawful to do things on other days, which it would not be lawful to do on the Sabbath day.

III. The Christian Sabbath.

We shall consider here, 1st, The day on which the Christian Sabbath is to be kept; 2d. The manner in which it is to be kept.

FIRST. The day on which the Christian Sabbath is to be kept.

First. There are indications, from the facts which transpired on that day, that it was to be specially honored under the new dispensation.

1. Our Savior arose on that day from the dead, having accomplished the work of man’s redemption.

2. On this day he appeared to his Apostles, a week from his resurrection, at which time he had his conversation with Thomas.

3. On this day, also, occurred the feast of Pentecost, when the Spirit was in so remarkable a manner poured out, and when the new dispensation emphatically commenced.

Second. That the primitive Christians, in the days of the Apostles, were accustomed to observe this day, as their day of weekly worship, is evident from several passages in the New Testament, and also from the earliest ecclesiastical records.

1. That the early disciples, in all places, were accustomed to meet statedly, to worship and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, is evident from I Corinthians 11:1, 14, 20, 23, 40. And that these meetings were on the first day of the week, may be gathered from 1 Corinthians 16:1, 2.

2. That these meetings were held on the first day of the week, is also further evident from Acts 20:6-11; where we are informed, that in Troas the Christians met on the first day of the week to break bread, (that is, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper,) and to receive religious instruction. From these passages, we see that this custom had already become universal, not merely in the neighborhood of Jerusalem, but throughout the regions in which the Christian religion was promulgated.

3. Again, (Revelations 1:10) it is observed by John, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” From this remark, it is probable that John kept this day with peculiar solemnity. It is certain that the day had already obtained a particular name; a name by which it has continued to be distinguished in every subsequent age.

Besides these allusions to the day from the New Testament, there are various facts, bearing upon the subject, from uninspired historians.

1. The early fathers frequently refer to this day, as the day set apart for religious worship; and allude to the difference between keeping this day, and keeping the seventh, or Jewish Sabbath, specially on the ground of its being the day of our Savior’s resurrection.

2. Pliny, in his letter to Trajan, remarks that the Christians “were accustomed, on a stated day, to meet before day-light, and to repeat among themselves a hymn to Christ, as to a God, and to bind themselves, by a sacred obligation, not to commit any wickedness, but, on the contrary, to abstain from thefts, robberies and adulteries; also, not to violate their promise, or deny a pledge; after which, it was their custom to separate, and meet again at a promiscuous and harmless meal.” It is needless here to remark the exact coincidence between this account from the pen of a heathen magistrate, with the account given of the keeping of the day, in the passages where it is mentioned in the New Testament.

3. That this stated day was the first day of the week, of the Lord’s day, is evident from another testimony. So well known was the custom of the early Christians on this subject, that the ordinary question, put by their persecutors to the Christian martyrs, was, “Hast thou kept the Lord’s day?” Dominicum servasti? To which the usual answer was, “I am a Christian: I cannot omit it.” Christianus sum: intermittere non possum.

4 It is, however, manifest, that the Jews, who were strongly inclined to blend the rites of Moses with the Christian religion, at first kept the seventh day; or, what is very probable, at first kept both days. The Apostles declared that the disciples of Jesus were not under obligation to observe the seventh day. See Colossians 2:16, 17. Now, as the observance of the Sabbath is a precept given to the whole human race; as it is repeated, in the Mosaic law, as a moral precept; as the authority of this precept is recognized both by the teaching and example of Christ and his Apostles; as the Apostles teach that the keeping of the seventh day is not obligatory; and as they did keep the first day as a day of religious worship; it seems reasonable to conclude that they intended to teach, that the first day was that which we are, as Christians, to observe.

5. From these considerations, we feel warranted to conclude that the first day of the week was actually kept by the inspired Apostles, as the Christian Sabbath. Their example is sufficient to teach us that the keeping of this day is acceptable to God; and we are, on this ground, at liberty to keep it as the Sabbath. If, however, any other person be dissatisfied with these reasons, and feel under obligation to observe the seventh day, I see no precept in the word of God to forbid him.

6. If, however, as seems to me to be the case, both days are allowable; that is, if I have sufficient reason to believe that either is acceptable to God; but if, by observing the first day, I can enjoy more perfect leisure, and suffer less interruption, and thus better accomplish the object of the day; and if, besides, I have the example of inspired Apostles in favor of this observance; I should decidedly prefer to observe the first day. Nay, I should consider the choice of that day as obligatory. For, if I am allowed to devote either day to the worship of God, it is surely obligatory on me to worship God on that day on which I can best accomplish the very object for which the day was set apart.

If it be asked, when this day is to begin, I answer, that I presume we are at liberty to commence this day at the same time that we commence other days; for the obvious reason, that thus we can generally enjoy the quiet of the Sabbath with less interruption.

SECONDLY. Of the manner in which the Christian Sabbath is to be observed.

The design for which the Sabbath was instituted, I suppose to be, to set apart a portion of our time for the uninterrupted worship of God, and the preparation of our souls for eternity; and, also, to secure to man and beast one day in seven, as a season of rest from labor.

Hence, the law of the Sabbath forbids, —

1. All labor of body or mind, of which the immediate object is not the worship of God, or our own religious improvement. The only exceptions to this rule, are works of necessity or of mercy. The necessity, however, must be one which is imposed by the providence of God, and not by our own will. Thus, a ship, when on a voyage, may sail on the Sabbath, as well as on any other day, without violating the rule. The rule, however, would be violated by commencing the voyage on the Sabbath, because here a choice of days is in the power of the master.

2. The pursuit of pleasure, or of any animal, or merely intellectual gratification. Hence, the indulgence of our appetites in such manner as to prevent us from free and buoyant spiritual contemplation, riding or journeying for amusement, the merely social pleasure of visiting, the reading of books designed for the gratification of the taste or of the imagination, are all, by the principles of the command, forbidden.

3. The labor of those committed to our charge.

1. The labor of servants. Their souls are of as much value as our own, and they need the benefit of this law as much as ourselves. Besides, if this portion of their time be claimed by our Creator, we have no right to purchase it, nor have they the right to negotiate it away. Works of necessity must, of course, be performed; but these should be restricted within the limits prescribed by a conscientious regard to the object and design of the day.

2. Brutes are, by the fourth commandment, included in the law which ordains rest to all the animate creation. They need the repose which it grants, and they are entitled to their portion of it.

On the contrary, the law of the Sabbath enjoins the employment of the day in the more solemn and immediate duties of religion.

1. Reading the Scriptures, religious meditation, prayer in private, and also the special instruction in religion of those committed to our charge. And, hence, it enjoins such domestic arrangements as are consistent with these duties.

2. Social worship. Under the Mosaic and Christian dispensation, this was an important part of the duties of the day. As the setting apart of a particular day to be universally observed, involves the idea of social as well as personal religion, one of the most obvious duties which it imposes, is that of social worship; that is, of meeting together in societies, to return thanks for our social mercies, to implore the pardon of God for our social sins, and beseech His favor for those blessings which we need as societies, no less than as individuals.

The importance of the religious observance of the Sabbath, is seldom sufficiently estimated. Every attentive observer has remarked, that the violation of this command, by the young, is one of the most decided marks of incipient moral degeneracy. Religious restraint is fast losing its hold upon that young man, who, having been educated in the fear of God, begins to spend the Sabbath in idleness, or in amusement. And so, also, of communities. The desecration of the Sabbath is one of those evident indications of that criminal recklessness, that insane love of pleasure, and that subjection to the government of appetite and passion, which forebodes, that the “beginning of the end” of social happiness, and of true national prosperity, has arrived.

Hence, we see how imperative is the duty of parents, and of legislators, on this subject. The head of every family is obliged, by the command of God, not only to honor this day himself, but to use all the means in his power to secure the observance of it, by all those committed to his charge. He is, thus, promoting not only his own, but also his children’s happiness; for nothing is a more sure antagonist force to all the allurements of vice, as nothing tends more strongly to fix in the minds of the young a conviction of the existence and attributes of God, than the solemn keeping of this day. And, hence, also, legislators are false to their trust, who, either by the enactment of laws, or by their example, diminish, in the least degree, in the minds of a people, the reverence due to that day which God has set apart for Himself.

The only question which remains, is the following:

Is it the duty of the civil magistrate to enforce the observance of the Sabbath?

We are inclined to think not, and for the following reasons:

1. The duty arises solely from our relations to God, and not from our relations to man. Now, our duties to God are never to be placed within the control of human legislation.

2. If the civil magistrate has a right to take cognizance of this duty to God, he has a right to take cognizance of every other. And, if he have a right to take cognizance of the duty, he has a right to prescribe in what manner it shall be discharged; or, if he see fit, to forbid the observance of it altogether. The concession of this right would, therefore, lead to direct interference with liberty of conscience.

3 The keeping of the Sabbath is a moral duty. Hence, if it be acceptably observed, it must be a voluntary service. But the civil magistrate can never do any thing more than produce obedience to the external precept; which, in the sight of God, would not be the keeping of the Sabbath at all. Hence, to allow the civil magistrate to enforce the observance of the Sabbath, would be to surrender to him the control over the conscience, without attaining even the object for which the surrender was made.

4. It is, however, the duty of the civil magistrate, to protect every individual in the undisturbed right of worshiping God as he pleases. This protection, every individual has a right to claim, and society is under obligation to extend it. And, also, as this is a leisure day, and is liable to various abuses, the magistrate has a right to prevent any modes of gratification which would tend to disturb the peace of society. This right is acknowledged in regulations respecting other days of leisure or rejoicing; and there can be no reason why it should not be exercised in respect to the Sabbath.

5. And, lastly, the law of the Sabbath applies equally to societies, and to individuals. An individual is forbidden to labor on the Sabbath, or to employ another person to labor for him. The rule is the same, when applied to any number of individuals; that is, to a society. Hence, a society has no right to employ persons to labor for them. The contract is a violation of the Sabbatical law. It is on this ground that I consider the carrying of the mail on this day a social violation of the Christian Sabbath.